Writing Incrementally: Chunking Through a Chapter

    By: Jonathan Gennick on Mar 08, 2017

    Writing my first-ever book chapter, I began typing toward my 30 pages and threw in headings every so often as the thought occurred. The result was a disorganized tangle, and my poor editor spent the next several chapters educating me about structure and the proper use of headings.

    Since then, I’ve come to a better way of doing things. No one has time to write a chapter. I surely don’t. But I do have time to write a paragraph or a page. My secret to writing a book chapter is not to write a chapter at all, but to divide the task into tiny chunks of easy accomplishment.

    Name the Major Topics

    Begin with a warm-up: Write the chapter title and copy in the headings from your outline. (You do have an outline, right?) Exhibit 1 shows how that might look like for a book on Window Functions in Oracle SQL.

    Exhibit 1. First-level Headings

    Exhibit 1. First-level headings

    Easy! Job done. Pat yourself on the back; you’ve just achieved closure. Allow yourself a little bit of a dopamine reward. Take a break if you need one. Then come back and attack what’s next.

    Introduce the Chapter

    Next is the first bit of fresh content. Write the chapter introduction. That’s all. Just the introduction. Focus your entire mental energies on writing from one to three paragraphs (one is fine!) introducing the overall content of the chapter.

    Exhibit 2 shows my result for our hypothetical chapter.

    Exhibit 2. The Chapter introduction

    Exhibit 2.The Chapter Introduction

    Pause to make sure your introduction encompasses all the main topics — mine does. I’ve mentioned “four groups” in my introductory paragraph, and, indeed, there are four main topics in my chapter. Each of those main topics is a problem group, so my introduction covers the gamut of the chapter.

    See how easy the work is going? Small steps. Each an accomplishment. That’s the secret.

    Flesh Out the First Topic

    Recursively approach the first topic in the same way that you approached the chapter. Begin by dividing your first main topic into subtopics. Do that by writing subheadings, as I’ve done in Exhibit 3.

    Exhibit 3. Second-level Headings

    Exhibit 3. Second-level Headings

    Getting to the state in Exhibit 3 is about more than just typing in six subheadings. I normally put only first-level headings in my outlines. Then I work out the second-level headings like in Exhibit 3 on the fly, one main topic at a time. Driving into the details of each main section requires me to balance scope against page count, and sometimes forces me to rethink other sections in the chapter.

    Make any adjustments you feel are needed. I’m somewhat tempted to move the subsections on “Improved Performance” and “Expressiveness and Simplicity” to a new main section at the end of the chapter, or possibly into a separate chapter on their own. Now would be the time for me to decide.

    Introduce the First Topic

    Do you begin to see the pattern? Now introduce the first topic, as I’ve done in Exhibit 4. Don’t leave readers guessing. Tell them what you are about to tell them, because doing so allows readers to mentally organize your content as they read and absorb it. Readers need to know where you are heading so they can follow along and keep up.

    Exhibit 4. First-Main Section Introduction

    Exhibit 4. First Main Section Introduction

    My introduction in Exhibit 4 covers the ground by evoking mental images of what the follow-on topics will cover. I mention summary and detail data in the context of self-joins, and my first two subsections are about the GROUP BY clause (for summary data) and self-joins to get at the detail. I bring up window functions as a solution, and my next section topic is on the OVER clause that is fundamental to those functions.

    My introduction mentions expressiveness and simplicity prior to query performance. I like that flow in the paragraph, and perhaps it’s a better flow for the section itself. I’ve thus reversed the ordering of my final two section topics so that their order corresponds with that in my introductory paragraph. (Compare those subheadings in Exhibit 3 to where they are in Exhibit 4).

    Write Each Subtopic

    Now comes the work of writing each of the planned subtopics. But don’t think in those terms! Focus on one subsection at a time.

    Make the work manageable by “chunkifying” it. Do not think in terms of:

    • Write all the subtopics under “Mixing Aggregate and Detail”

    Apply the concept of chunking and think in terms of smaller tasks:

    • Write a subsection on “Traditional GROUP BY Queries”
    • Write a subsection on “Self-join Access to Detail Data”

    And so forth…

    You’re probably looking at a page or two on each of these subtopics. And that’s exactly where you want to be, because a page or two of content is a small enough chunk that you can get your mind around what you want to say and hold your vision in mind while you type the words into your document.

    Reward Yourself!

    Taking a stepwise approach to writing a book chapter changes the work from the fearsome task of writing 20 or 30 pages into a series of tiny tasks that are more easily achievable. You can feel rewarded at the end of each of those tasks, and the long slog of writing a chapter becomes a pleasurable series of micro-accomplishments of which you can be proud.

    The micro-tasks in getting through a book chapter also become the perfect breakpoints. Do you just have one hour to work on a chapter? Is that long enough to write the chapter introduction? Or to finish just one subtopic? Or to write the subheadings for your next section? When the chunks are small, you can plan to always finish a chunk in one sitting, and you never need walk away feeling that you’ve left work half done. Because you haven’t.

    Try It!

    The stepwise approach of dividing the work of a chapter into a series of tiny chunks works for me because I’m easily distracted and have a difficult time focusing. I thrive on a feeling of closure, and breaking my creative work into easy-size chunks lets me reap the emotional boost of closure after closure.

    Try the approach next time you’re faced with a writing task. It’s not necessarily the right approach for every single writer on the planet, but it can be effective in helping you to reframe a fearsome and formidable task into a series of friendly and easily-doable shorter ones.

    Note: Just as this post was going to press, Sten Vesterli released a post on LinkedIn touching on the same idea of dividing work into chunks. He speaks of agile development and frequent software releases, which goes toward the same idea I talk about in this post of claiming a series of small accomplishments along the way toward completing a large project.

    Released: March 8, 2017, 9:01 am | Updated: March 8, 2017, 9:15 am
    Keywords: IOUG Press Corner | Apress | Jonathan Gennick | Writing Tips

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